Saturday, December 15, 2012

But what about the kids who lived?

Like many, I have spent the last day and a half alternating between tears, confusion and anger over Friday morning's mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

28 people shot to death, including 20 children.  And while theories may be cobbled together by whatever bits of evidence remain, we will really never know why, or what was going on in the gunman's head, or what -- if anything -- could have been done to prevent this.

More restrictive gun laws would be the first thing that spring to mind, of course.  Not to mention better access and less stigma attached to mental health services.  I understand that various people are going to have difficulty with each of those statements.  I'll stand by them anyhow.

If the murderer had gone into a school with a lead pipe as his weapon, less people would be dead.  Period.

Yes, at least part of his intention seems to have been to cause harm, and he probably would have found a way to do so with or without more restrictive gun laws, but it would have been far more difficult for him to do so, perhaps even giving him some time to come to his senses, or for someone else along the chain to notice something wasn't quite kosher.  And the argument that he could have illegally obtained a firearm just doesn't hold much importance, since it appears the firearms he used were all properly obtained and registered.

I got a bit of a raised eyebrow from someone (who didn't know me or my own story) when I tweeted yesterday "What a different day this would be if mental health services were more readily available than personal firearms."  He was -- and rightly so -- concerned with a perceived mapping of mental health onto mass killings.  I have read others' concerns about that issue, and understand where they're coming from.

But, as you'll hopefully remember from your own elementary school math classes, saying all A = B does NOT mean that all B = A.

As someone who has 30+ years as a "customer" of mental health services, I can safely assure everyone that I have never been a mass murderer.  (I can't even bring myself to set up a mousetrap, fer cryin' out loud!)  I'm pretty certain that 99.999999999% of my fellow mental-health-care consumers are in the same boat.


But I think it's pretty safe to say that someone who murders his mother, opens fire on elementary school classrooms and then shoots himself in the head PROBABLY has some pretty major issues, and could have used some help in the mental health department.  Which, "mental health" cutting a pretty broad swathe, does not mean he necessarily had a mental illness or personality disorder -- it could have been addictions issues, a traumatic event that made him "snap", PTSD trigger, emotional breakdown, seriously messed-up perceptions of the world, or simply never having been given all the necessary emotional tools for his toolbox.  A "diagnosis" at this point is neither possible nor helpful.  But it's pretty damned obvious this guy needed help in the emotional and decision-making spheres, and did not receive it.  Why not?  Again, we'll never know for certain.

To the people who are afraid of mass murders being associated with mental health issues, I'd argue that the danger of stigma arises because the only time we seem to talk about such things is when disaster strikes.  We don't talk about mental health issues unless we're forced to.  Which is kind of freaking ridiculous, because with the previously-mentioned wide swathe that "mental health" covers, ALMOST EVERYONE has mental health issues at one or more points in their lives.  Almost none of them become mass murderers.

We need to start a dialogue, to share our stories, to show everyone that mental health is as important to ourselves and our society as physical health.  To show that going to a counsellor or psychiatrist or support group when you need an emotional "tune up" is no more embarrassing than going to the dentist when you have a toothache.  Even the most well-adjusted, lovingly-raised, tragedy-free people out there (I'm sure there are some, right?) have things happen to them in their lives that they need help with -- the loss of a loved one, workplace stress, dealing with teenaged kids... whatever.  We aren't all born with 100% of the self-knowledge and emotional intelligence we need to handle every single situation we come across in life, and we shouldn't expect ourselves or each other to have it all together.

You don't need to be a gun-toting murderer to need mental health services.  Getting help with your mental health does not make you a gun-toting murderer.

And yes, I stand by my statement that if mental health services were more accessible than firearms, yesterday would have been a very different day.

Twenty children died yesterday (mercifully quickly, according to the coroner's report).  Six school staff.  The gunman and his mother, leaving behind the brother initially accused and now probably dealing with more emotions than he can name.  Twenty-seven families who had been looking forward to the upcoming holiday break, but will spend it in grief and mourning instead.

These are the people mentioned in the media reports.  These are the lives mourned.  And rightfully so.

But what about the other lives ruined yesterday?  There are reportedly 626 children enrolled in Sandy Hook Elementary, in kindergarten through grade four.  By my calculations, that means the majority of witnesses to this violence were between the ages of 4 and 9, and the kids reported killed were ages 6 and 7, meaning that a bunch of their 6- and 7-year old classmates directly witnessed their murder, and probably narrowly escaped their own.

Which means that 600-or-so children have just had a lifetime of PTSD dumped on them.  (And don't even get me started on the poor kids who had reporters' microphones stuffed in their faces mere moments after their escape.)

Which kind of gets me back to the wish that mental health services were as easily accessible as firearms.

We can only hope that these kids and their families are all getting access to trauma counselling right now.  Yet, considering the ages of those kids, the effects probably won't surface until the funding for that emergency counselling runs out.  Which, in the United States, means that only the lucky kids whose parents have an amazing health plan (not to mention the knowledge of when and how to access care) will get adequate treatment for their trauma.  And when they become adults and (hopefully) get health insurance of their own, even if mental health is miraculously covered by their plan, their PTSD will be a pre-existing condition, and therefore not likely covered.

God Bless America.

And thanks to everyone who helped create this fate that I was born in the land of OHIP (that's our provincial health care plan, for those outside of Ontario).

I can NOT imagine where I would be today if I'd ever had to consider the price of my own psychiatric and other mental health treatments.  Actually, I can.  I'd be depressed, dissociative, and with zero tools in my toolbox to handle my other PTSD symptoms, not to mention handling life-in-general.  I would, to use a technical term, be totally f*cked.

From what I can gather in unravelling and re-associating my past, I was these kids' age when I first started to dissociate.  And with no psych degree or statistics to back this up, I think kids that age can be REALLY AWESOME at dissociation.  I sure was -- a freaking overachiever, as always.  ;-)

Have yet to develop the emotional tools to deal with the trauma you're experiencing?  No problem -- just pretend it didn't happen.  Or it happened to your imaginary friend.  It's awesome.  I'm not being sarcastic, it REALLY IS AWESOME.  I am fascinated by the human brain's ability to save its own life.  To keep it safe from things it doesn't know how to deal with, and keep those things neatly packaged away until it's got the knowledge and tools and support it needs to be able to deal with it.  While I thought I was stark-raving mad during some of the middle bits, my brain was actually keeping me sane and safe.  I am in awe of my brain.  :-)

But my brain was only doing what these kids' brains are about to do -- it's just that most kids don't (fortunately!) need to access this particular brain function.

These kids are going to survive and forget and let themselves remember when they're able.  They will appear to be "normal", they will appear to have bounced back long before the adults, they will play and joke and play on the monkey bars and be kids again.

Until something triggers them, or until their brains start to let the memories seep back in.

And whether it's the former or latter scenario, this will be the time when THEY think they're stark-raving mad.  This will be the time when they need a strong support system.  This will be the time they need some kick-ass mental health services.  This will be the time when the people around them need to remind them that this is the brain reacting to trauma, that it's OK to ask for help, that it's normal to NEED help in dealing with this.

Trauma isn't a rainy day when you wish it were sunny.  TRAUMA IS F*CKING TRAUMA.

Having seen how "well" (yes, that IS sarcasm) their country has dealt with the PTSD of their own First Responders and Veterans, I don't have much faith that they're going to look after these kids any better.  After an initial flurry, they'll leave it to the parents -- forgetting, of course, that the parents have now likely been dealt with PTSD symptoms of their very own, and may not be fully capable of dealing with their children's issues adequately, even if they could afford to do so.

Do I seem angry?  Yup, I'm angry.

Yes, I'm angry that there isn't stricter gun control.  Yes, I'm angry that the gunman got to the point where shooting random children seemed like a good idea.  Yes, I'm angry that the Godless Westboro Baptist Church is actually planning to picket the children's funerals.  Yes, I'm angry that those insensitive reporters thought the story was more important than the children's well-being.  Those are the obvious angers.  There are many people angry about all those things.

What I don't hear is any anger over what's happened -- and is going to happen -- to and for the survivors.  Right now, they seem to be considered the lucky ones.  They are soooo not the lucky ones.

Suffer little children to come unto me...

Right alongside the 28 dead souls, there are going to be 600+ lost souls.  That's what's really making me angry.

I hope it makes some others angry too.  I hope some of those angry people are in a place where they can do something to help those kids who are still alive, but who died a little inside yesterday.  I hope that, once all the hooplah is over, amidst all the anger and calls for prevention of future occurrences (all of which are good calls, don't get me wrong), that someone bothers to help the surviving victims of Friday's massacre.

I challenge the U.S. and Connecticut governments to provide free mental health care to these children in perpetuity.

Because even an angry girl can dream.


  1. wow. That's all I can say. Wow. It's not just guns + mental health issues + lack of impulse control, it's also the effect these sickening events have on everyone's psyche - most especially the survivors. From a world who buries its head in the sand of platitudes, prayers and angel poems, thank you!

    1. I love that last sentence, Sharon. :-) Maybe I'm just a cynic, though...

      But yes, Friday's tragedy will have many ripples far beyond the 28 deaths, and I absolutely agree we shouldn't bury our heads in the sand over it.

  2. Brilliant, Alyssa. We should all be just as angry.

  3. yes. We should.

    and are.

    and yes, I too dream.